RALEIGH, N.C. – Justin Jackson will tell you he wasn’t exactly sure where he was supposed to be in No. 7 North Carolina’s secondary break with four-and-half minutes to play in the first half on Wednesday. It was hard to tell, given his smooth stroke from the top of the key to give UNC its first lead after falling behind N.C. State by 13 points.
“I didn’t really know where to go as the four,” Jackson said after the 80-68 victory. “I knew the four or the five trailed, and our big man was already down there, so I just trailed and he was backed off, so I took it.”
The sophomore wing, who normally plays on the wing even when Roy Williams elects to go small, took advantage of his skill set from the 4-spot against Wolfpack forward Abdul-Malik Abu on the next possession, this time faking the 3-point shot as the trailer to get his defender in the air before driving around him for the layup.
These were confident plays by a young man playing out of position, and they were plays that were few and far between through the first 10 games of ACC play. After thinking too much for too long, Jackson is back to playing basketball, and UNC is the beneficiary.
Jackson sparked the Tar Heels with 14 first-half points at PNC Arena, thereby securing his fifth-straight game scoring in double figures since being pulled out of the starting lineup at Boston College on Feb. 9. The Tomball, Tex. native finished with 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go along with six rebounds and three assists.
“I just tried to keep playing, keep attacking and be as aggressive as I can,” Jackson said. “Today my teammates were finding me. I was open and I just stepped into the shot like I was going to make it.”
The sophomore wing had scored nine or fewer points in six of his previous eight games before the trip to Boston, including a six-point effort on 2-of-9 shooting against the Wolfpack in Chapel Hill. Over his last five games, Jackson is averaging 15.8 points on 61.1 percent shooting (56.3 percent from 3-point range), 4.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists.
“His confidence is just sky high,” senior guard Marcus Paige said.
With 12:10 to play, Jackson displayed a quick first step on the baseline in sliding past Maverick Rowan for a reverse layup and a three-point play to give UNC its largest lead at 59-48. It was an assertive move to the basket reminiscent of the strong close to his freshman season last March.
“We need him to be like this,” Paige said. “He’s a 6-7 wing that can score at all three levels – in transition, in mid-range and from three. When he’s scoring, he’s an option that a lot of teams don’t have an answer for. It’s hard to match up with a guy like him and he’s been playing well.”
His confidence level is showing up beyond his offensive offerings. Roy Williams praised his defensive play after the game, while his rebounding, once a glaring weakness, has also improved.
“I’ve just tried to forget everything in the past,” Jackson said. “So whether it’s a missed box-out or it’s a turnover, whatever it is, I just try to keep on playing. Try to be aggressive and play my game.”